Whoo-hoo! Two non-fiction books gets me two more squares and two Bingos! I may not manage a black-out before the end of the month but I am finally making some headway in this game.
CBR 11 Bingo: Award Winner
The Devil in the White City- Erik Larson
Y’all, I read this book in July and then completely forgot about it.
In my defense The Devil in the White City has the dubious honor of being the book I was reading when I found out I was pregnant and therefore anytime I turned on Overdrive to listen to a few chapters a third of my brain was occupied with terror & joy and unable to retain a vast majority of the information being relayed to me; then another third was driving or trying to do my job leaving only a fraction of my sleep addled brain to listen for reals.
But— lucky for me, and my abysmal review game this year, Mr. Larson won an Edgar Award for Fact Crime in 2004! So clearly I was just saving it for Bingo, right?
I remember hearing about Leonardo DiCaprio signing on to star as H.H. Holmes in a film adaptation years ago and a quick Google search tells me things are finally moving forward (with Martin Scorsese!) at Hulu. In Leo hoping to get an Emmy?
So my memories on The Devil in the White City are vague to say the least. The gist is Larsen weaves the story of America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, and the Chicago World’s Fair architect, Daniel Hudson Burnham, together into a comprehensive, albeit forgettable, narrative. I understand the time table and settings overlapped (it is believed the Fair was a hunting ground for Holmes) but I feel like the story could have been more engaging had they been split. Larsen had a much better handle on the Fair aspect of his story but a lot of his focus on Holmes came down to conjecture since the notably private killer managed to hide his extracurricular activities for almost five years. Obviously America’s first serial killer is a sexier story line than the first Ferris Wheel but if that is what he wanted to write about then just write about that!
“It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.”
So the question becomes: Would I have been more captivated if Larsen had written one biography on Holmes and another sweeping history of the World’s Fair?
Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble– Dan Lyons
Fifty year old Dan Lyons was laid off by Newsweek where he had been a writer for their technology articles. After a year or so of floundering he found himself accepting a position at tech start up HubSpot. While he was apprehensive that his twenty five years as a journalist would properly translate to his new role he was given stock options and assumed he would make a pretty penny when the company went public.
My friends and family are constantly saying my office has too much fun. We have early release (“Fun Friday”) once a month, food trucks and farmer’s markets come regularly and I have taken a shot of Fireball with my boss’s boss in her house before. It is a fun place to work but believe me we do get tangible work done and long hours are had by all. Perks are great but they shouldn’t be the defining characteristic of a company. All of this is to say that HubSpot sounds like a miserable place to work if you have any idea on what a company is supposed to look like. They have tons of fun perks, like free candy and beer, as well as team building activities (that vary in their appeal) but very little structure.
“You don’t get rewarded for creating great technology, not anymore,” says a friend of mine who has worked in tech since the 1980s, a former investment banker who now advises start-ups. “It’s all about the business model. The market pays you to have a company that scales quickly. It’s all about getting big fast. Don’t be profitable, just get big.”
Oh, and what was HubSpot selling? Spam emails mostly along a healthy dosage of bro-culture.
Lyons is snarky and a bit curmudgeony about HubSpot; he was never going to fully embrace the culture and drink the proverbial Koolaid but he also doesn’t really try to fit in with his new coworkers. Overall this is a fun look at the inside of the start up bubble- a more comedic take than Bad Blood yet it still contains espionage and lawyers!
Naturally Tan- Tan France
I am part of the generation that watched the original Queer Eye for the Straight Guy on Bravo but I also gave the Netflix reboot a shot with the first two seasons. I found it more emotionally manipulative than the original and Johnathan Van Ness is incredibly irritating.* Tan France, the most reserved of the bunch, is also the first to write a book and capitalize on his newfound fame.
As a gay, Mulism, Pakistani man raised in London Tan has had a very interesting life- he met his husband online as part of a bet with his American friends that he could pick up a man without using his English accent as catnip. When Tan is not filming his television show or doing press he lives at home with his husband. In Salt Lake City, Utah… On purpose. There he was able to open not one, not two but three successful ready to wear clothing companies that eventually put him on the radar of the team behind the Queer Eye reboot. Being in the spotlight has given France a platform and he seems to be doing his best to make the most of it. His book is open and honest about the struggles he faced being South Asian (and gay) while growing up as well as the blatant racism he still faces today, particularly in American airports, despite his famous face.
*I think he is one of those people that you either love or hate and I’m in the latter camp
Notes from a Young Black Chef- Kwame Onwuachi, Joshua David Stein
Kwame Onwuachi was a cast member of Top Chef: California; despite being the pickiest eater alive I love Top Chef and have read books by host Padme Lakshmi and Judge Gail Simmons but this was the first memoir I read from a contestant. Unfortunately, if you want to know more about the experience of Top Chef from the chef’s perspective this is not the right memoir. Onwuachi focuses almost exclusively on his upbringing, first forays into haute cuisine and then opening his own restaurant. He devotes only a handful of paragraphs to his run on the TV show that made him a household name for foodies.
That isn’t to say that Kwame’s memoir is dull or his life story isn’t worthy of sharing- it just wasn’t what I was expecting. Kwame was raised in the Bronx by a single mother who, in his early teens, sent him to live with his paternal grandfather in Nigeria for a few years. When he returned Kwame made friends with a boy from the Projects who introduced him to gang life, drugs and fights. Kwame managed to graduate high school and make it to the University of Bridgeport- where he was expelled within the year for running a drug ring out of his dorm room.
Eventually Kwame got clean and moved to Louisiana with his mother where he got a job cooking on for the Deepwater Horizon clean up crew. He spent his leave blowing through his paycheck on five star dinners in New York and when his contract was up he got his foot into the door of fine dining by waiting tables at Tom Colicchio’s Craft before opening a small catering company.
“But more infuriating is the question about to whom I should have been paying dues. It seems like the only ones keeping track are the white guys with tall hats. And how did those guys get into the club? By paying dues to older white guys with even taller hats. As for the thousands of black and brown chefs—dubbed cooks, domestics, servants, boys, and mammies who were kept out of restaurant kitchens or overlooked within them—they were beyond consideration. Their work, like them, was invisible.”
See Onwuachi has a life story well worth a memoir regardless of his connection to a popular television show! I just wished he had highlighted that portion of his life a bit more. Overall Kwame’s story is fascinating but the writing style is a little clunky and could have used a more refined touch from the editor and his co-writer.
CBR 11 Bingo: Own Voices
A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier- Ishmael Beah
I’ve read several memoirs from children who grew up in war torn parts of Africa but A Long Way Gone is the first one where the child was directly involved in the violence playing out within their country. This is a tough one to read and the brevity in Beah’s writing is both a blessing and a curse.
In the early 1990s Sierra Leone was at civil war; Ishmael was twelve when his village was attacked by rebels and he was forced to flee into the jungle. Sometimes he was alone but he managed to group together with other displaced boys for most of his time wandering around the country. Sometimes the boys got caught but they managed to escape with their lives on multiple occasions- usually through their love and talent for performing American hip-hop songs.
“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”
Then Ishmael was found by the government army and at thirteen he was forcibly enlisted into their forces. While he was always a sweet boy the violent circumstances he found himself in altered his personality drastically. A lot of this had to do with the steady stream of drugs the children were fed- primarily marijuana and cocaine- and other brainwashing techniques used by the army. The subject matter covered in A Long Way Gone is incredibly sensitive and hard to swallow. Beah spends the bulk of the book focusing on his time before and after being enlisted into the army but there is still an overwhelming amount of violence. I think he glosses over many of the details from his time in the army due to the difficult subject matter but I also imagine the combination of drug use and PTSD has made it difficult for Beah to retain a lot of the memories from his time in the army.
Eventually Ishmael, now a fifteen year old lieutenant in the army, was rescued by UNICEF who was trying to rehabilitate child soldiers from both sides of the conflict. Initially resistant to the process Ishmael eventually forged a strong, positive relationship with one of the nurses at the UNICEF base.